A version of this story was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 22, 2011.
I was in Krakow as the city was celebrating its independence. It was a fresh winter morning and its sumptuous main square was bathed in sunlight. An ageing soldier with a walrus moustache and a great coat decorated in brass marched at the head of a brigade of veterans. Crossing a small portion of the vast Rynek Glowny (it is the largest medieval square in Europe), the veterans narrowly avoided a florid sick stain on the flagstones that threatened to put an end to the dignity of the moment.
When the Poles kicked out their communist overlords, it was never going to be long before the rest of the world beat a path to Krakow. With its medieval ramparts that date back 700 years, it’s a fairytale city of grandiose castles, baroque churches and moderately-priced beer.
This last factor is less of a draw than in Prague, in the next-door Czech Republic. Nonetheless, a fair volume of Western men tip out of the budget airlines each weekend to drink themselves hoarse. Krakow’s status as a party city owes as much to its student population as anything else, though. Its historic Jagiellonian University is the most prestigious in Poland counting among its alumni the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and the late pope John Paul II.
In the evening its present intake mill about in the streets that feed off Rynek Glowny and down vodka shots in the proliferation of bars there or in the cafes off Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter.
I suppose if you were being precious you might consider it a slur on the impeccable beauty of the place, all this hedonism. But that would be to forget the world the decadence replaced.
When Krakow emerged from the tatters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in October 1918 (the event I saw memorialized in the town square) it became part of an independent Poland for the first time in over a century. This independence lasted just two decades until the Nazis arrived. After a reign of terror that included the wholesale murder of the city’s Jews, they gave way to the Russians, whose rule was just as unyielding though markedly less deranged. These days a degree of nostalgia for the more kitsch elements of the communist-era is reflected in hostel names like “Goodbye Lenin” and tours of the suburbs and old steel works in a restored Trabant.
No such playfulness can be brought to bear on the German occupation, however. An hour’s drive west of Krakow is the town of Oswiecim. Better known by the Germanic version of its name, it was scene of the biggest act of mass murder ever known. Walking around the death camp of Auschwitz, the most striking thing is the ordinariness of the place. The redbrick prison blocks look like warehouses, the chimneystack above the gas chamber is neat and unassuming.
A second, much larger camp was built a few miles away. Known as Auschwitz-Birkenau it accommodated 200,000 inmates in wooden blocks that resembled stables.
More than a million Jews, Gypsies and Poles were tortured and killed at Birkenau. New arrivals were herded from the wagons and made to form a queue before an SS doctor who looked them over before ushering them to the left or straight on. Left took them into the camp but majority – around three quarters, our guide said – were directed ahead to the four purpose-built gas chambers.
Standing by these same rail lines facing the ruins of the gas chambers I asked our guide Beata if she found it hard to retrace such disturbing material each day.
“Most of the people who work here have some connection with the place,” she said. The first director of the museum was an inmate. So was Beata’s uncle, who was imprisoned here after he was caught by Gestapo officers on the streets of Krakow beyond a 10pm curfew.
A meek-voiced woman with dark patches below her eyes, Beata pointed out the block where he slept on straw mattresses two to a bed, and where he contracted Typhoid and nearly died. “Afterwards, he was one of those who preferred not to talk about his experience,” she said.
At the outbreak of war there were 65,000 Jews in Krakow. Today there are less than 200. This horrendous statistic is tempered a little by the stories of those who tried to help. A third of those recognised as “the Righteous Among Nations” by the Jewish faith were Poles. They include Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who ran a pharmacy in the Krakow ghetto from where he doled out medicine (often for free) to the severely malnourished residents.
Pankiewicz, who published a harrowing memoir of his experiences, is an easier character to admire than Oskar Schindler, whose status as a saviour is complicated by his collaboration with the Third Reich. A war profiteer who came to Poland to spy for the Nazis, Schindler took over an enamelware factory on the edge of the ghetto in the working class neighbourhood of Podgorze where he employed Jews because it was free labour. His workers lived in a camp connected to the factory in conditions of squalor, but it was paradise relative to what was going on outside.
The site of the factory has been turned into a museum that opened in June 2010. It tells the broader story of Krakow during the Nazi occupation as well as the history of Schindler’s Jews.
I went there a Friday afternoon. When I came out it was dark and I walked through Kazimierz, passing a smattering of Jewish restaurants playing klezmer. Outside of bars rosy-cheeked Polish girls handed out vouchers for cheap vodka.
At a restaurant back in the old town I ate a goulash that sat within a bowl of bread. I chugged back a few vodkas and moved on to a bar where the house band was stomping on some American rock standards. On the dance floor vampish blonds vogued beside bleary-eyed men wobbling unsteadily like bowling skittles.
I joined in for a few tracks but I couldn’t get into it. Back on the streets the ghosts of the past crowded in on me. The past intrudes on you here in that way that it must in places where true horror has existed. As I walked along I thought about Beata’s uncle, back in Krakow after the war. How often had he repassed the spot where they arrested him in the years that followed? Crossing the square under the town hall tower I passed the site of the morning parade. A drunk young Brit, his hair jelled flat like a set of railings, approached me. “Mate. You know any strip clubs?”
There was a restaurant called “Roasters”, I said, where they showed boxing on plasma TVs and the girls wore hot pants. This information didn’t seem to satisfy him and he squinted at me suspiciously. “Nice place Krakow ain’t it?” He said eventually.
“Lovely,” I said.
“Been to Auschwitz?”
He squinted some more and shaking his head he said angrily: “Nazi bastards!” And the young man staggered off up the square, narrowly missing the atomic stain that still decorated the otherwise pristine flagstones.